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Archives for November 2010


Betsan Powys | 10:37 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Had this afternoon's statement by Education Minister Leighton Andrews on tuition fees been timed to coincide with Countdown to ensure an easy ride from students?

Winner of the class prize for best question during this morning's lobby briefing and the sole question the minister hadn't anticipated and didn't feel the need to bat off. The timing of Ministerial statements was out of his hands, he answered in a mock grave tone.

All the other answers to all the other questions around higher education and tuition fees are very much in his hands: how much will Welsh universities be able to charge in future? Will they be able to charge as much as £9,000 per year from September 2012 in line with the UK Government's intention for universities in England? If not, wait for warnings from Vice Chancellors in Wales that they're falling further and further behind their colleagues in England.

If so, then how much financial assistance can the Assembly Government offer students who live in Wales and who want to take their studies further? Will they be prepared to pay part of the fees of students who are domiciled in Wales in order to fulfil their committment in the One Wales agreement to do "whatever is possible to mitigate the effects on Welsh-domiciled students if the Westminster government lifts the cap on fees".

If they do, will that offer only be made to students who are from Wales and who choose to study in Wales? Will there be an element of means-testing, or will any offer be universal?

And what about those who live in Wales but who choose to study in England? There are currently 16,000 a year who cross the border to study. You don't need Carol Vorderman to tell you that's a big number - it's a third of the total Welsh student body. Will they be told that they're on their own? Will they have to pay their own way and be offered less government help - just as happens now? Or will they, in future, be offered the same financial deal as their mates who choose to stay relatively near home to study?

In other words, could this afternoon's statement lead to a situation where a student from Swansea and a student from Swindon both end up in a lecture theatre on a popular course in Bristol, get chatting and find that one is going to leave with student debts that are considerably lower than the other?

The university authorities would still be getting £9,000 for both students of course - it's just that you and I and all other tax-payers in Wales will be making up the difference, in other words effectively subsidising the higher education sector in England.

Is there "a Welsh solution" - and if there is one, what does it look like and how much will it cost?

That's we'll find out from the Education Minister this afternoon. Just how many big numbers from the top row does he have to play with? Or is he stuck with the considerably smaller ones from the other three rows?

Wherever the money comes from - and wherever it goes, this afternoon's statement is worth turning over from Countdown for.


So now we know. The "made in Wales policy that demonstrates the benefits of devolution" - to quote the Education Minister - is this:

Welsh universities will be allowed to raise their fees up to £9,000 from 2012-13.

All Welsh-domiciled students - living in Wales in other words - will be given a Tuition Fee Grant which means they will pay no more than the £3,290 they do now.

The Assembly Government will make up the difference through the grant, which will be given to students from Wales studying at universities in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

It will NOT be means tested.

Does that mean Assembly Government money is being used to subsidise the education sector in England? Yes ... but by letting universities in Wales raise their fees to £9,000, there'll be money flowing the other way too.

So far, so giving with one hand and giving with the other. Where's the hand that is taking away to pay for this "Welsh solution?"

Aha - there it is. Much of the funding to pay for what is a very good deal for students will come from top slicing the teaching grant currently earmarked as funding for Welsh universities.

Students who were in the Senedd are cock-a-hoop ... on behalf of students who live in Wales and have done for three years. Less cock-a-hoop when they consider that students who live in England, say and come here to study will have to pay a whole lot more in future.

If you come from France, incidentally, or any EU member state and want to study at a Welsh university, you'll get the same deal as students who live in Wales. You can't discriminate against a student from another member state. You can discriminate against a student from within the same member state.

Let's see what the Vice Chancellors - wherever they live - make of it all.

Staying and going

Betsan Powys | 19:14 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


It's been a day of staying and going.

After Andrew RT Davies' sudden departure as Shadow Health Minister this morning, tonight news that John Walter Jones, chairman of S4C is staying in his post. Rumours of his immediate departure, or even its announcement in an official S4C statement last week, it would seem, were greatly exaggerated.

He's addressed staff at the channel in the last couple of hours, saying he'll stay on as chairman until his 65th birthday in March, or for as long as the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants him to.

The mood music from the DCMS over the past few days is that they will do everything possible to avoid getting further embroiled in this extraordinary ongoing row. How would it look, after all, if they were to intervene now when all eyes are on how independent S4C can truly be in future?

Earlier today in the Commons, Mr Hunt said the following: "I urge the S4C authority to clear up the confusion over the leadership of S4C as soon as possible because they owe nothing less to the people of Wales."

Today's statement has certainly cleared up the confusion about who is the chair of S4C. Mr Jones' "only concern is the future of Welsh language broadcasting" and is more than willing to stand down now but that call hasn't come.

But in terms of how the authority will function in the future, having been "hit by a Tsuanmi" as the Chairman put it to staff today, there's still an awful lot to be cleared up.

The body's already been described in various quarters as "dysfunctional" and "a joke". How will its members now react to the news that the man who they thought had walked out on them at a meeting last week (a case of a personal letter being "misinterpreted" said Mr Jones today) has walked back in to carry on chairing their meetings? You do wonder how he'll get on with his new deputy, put in place while the boss was away and who appeared on news bulletins that night calling on Mr Jones to go and go now.

Neither man will have long to wait to find out. An Email was sent this afternoon to authority members, asking whether they're free for a meeting tomorrow.

In the meantime, no interviews, says S4C. We'll see how long that lasts. That severe weather warning is still in full force.

Between Builth and the Bay

Betsan Powys | 13:48 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


On Facebook last week the Conservatives' Health spokesman had this to say after an interview about the party's policy of ring-fencing health spending:

"Interesting interview i think, and a chance to talk about our policy to protect the health budget. This is about priorities and we should be judged on that. Even Betsan Powys referred to it as a "perfectly tenable" policy position... It will be a matter for the public's judgement in the coming months and i'm certainly looking forward to taking the debate forward because we can deliver some fantastic improvements in the delivery of healthcare in Wales - it's not just about the money, its about ideas too".

This morning he reveals that resigning as health spokesman "is something that I have considered for some time now".

What a difference a week makes.

If you're interested, the "perfectly tenable" quote is entirely accurate and it's from this blog entry.

UPDATE 13.45

I spoke to Andrew R T Davies just as his committee meeting in Builth Wells broke up - not the sort of man to switch off his phone and leave others to do the explaining for him.

His resignation, he says, "is what it says on the tin" - in other words he's off to fight the good fight in South Wales Central and had been thinking of leaving the front bench for a while.

But he's at the top of the Tory list in SWC - why the need to resign? He wants to make sure there's a strong Conservative voice on the ground for the people of South Wales Central.

But while he's in Builth Wells, in the Bay the briefers are out, and their line is very simple - he resigned purely out of anger that he wasn't given the chairmanship of the Health Committee. No more, no less. No policy splits, no leadership manouverings.

"He's an excellent AM but he's prone to doing things on the spur of the moment which he later regrets - and this is one of those occasions" says the source.

Over to you, Mr Davies? "Rubbish" is the pithy retort from Builth. Jonathan Morgan will make "an excellent chairman". Would he have still have resigned even had he been offered the chairmanship? "I wasn't offered it".

Is this a sign of splits within the group on health policy? "There isn't a Rizla paper between me and any of my colleagues on policy issues."

Oh to be a fly on the wall of the Tory group meeting tomorrow morning.

Front to back.

Betsan Powys | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


Last week Andrew R T Davies was out defending the Conservative policy of ring-fencing health spending. He was robust, on the offensive - as per his usual style. But around corners there were colleagues shaking their heads and suggesting that "Andrew doesn't do detail."

The whispers got louder after a post-Budget interview on Good Morning Wales when the Tory Health spokesman gave his interpretation of what ring-fencing meant .... RPI inflation PLUS the GDP deflator. Erm - not the party's official policy (which is RPI inflation only), and a ruinously expensive pledge. What did we say, said his critics. Andrew doesn't do detail.

On Friday there was a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle that saw Jonathan Morgan, the former health spokesman, return to front bench duties. He's also taking the chair of the Health Committee. Tanks, lawn anyone?

On Saturday Nick Bourne tweeted that he was dealing with "a Labour infiltrator". It turns out he was referring to an intern who'd been working in the office of Andrew R T Davies. Slight embarrassment that a Labour supporter had ended up working for a Tory frontbencher - but that was it.

On Sunday a text arrived (while I was in chapel ... hiding the Blackberry in the hymn book best I could) suggesting all was not well in the Welsh Conservative camp.

This morning Andrew R T Davies has resigned. The man who beat David Melding into second place in the race to top the South Wales Central list, the man touted by many within his own group as a possible future leader has walked out of the health job and the shadow cabinet.

Here's his statement:

"I gave this indication to Nick Bourne on Saturday and it is something that I have considered for some time now. With the changes being made to the front bench team, I feel that now would be an opportune moment to make this move as it would allow any subsequent changes to be made with minimal disruption."

"I look forward to playing a full and productive role from the back benches, articulating the concerns and interests of the people of South Wales Central. I remain fully committed, as ever, to the Welsh Conservative Party and its policies and I shall continue to work tirelessly to develop a strong Conservative voice for the people of Wales."

A fit of pique? Or a man who is no fool, who senses his leader's days are numbered and is making the very, very risky calculation that distancing himself from him now will allow him, one day, to replace him?

Nick Ramsay takes over the Health brief while Nick Bourne takes over Finance. Here's his statement:

"Andrew has been a highly respected and hardworking member of the Shadow Cabinet and his decision came as surprise to the team.

"These changes, together with those announced last week, will ensure that the Welsh Conservatives continue to be the only effective opposition to the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government."

Mr Davies - a "hugely ambitious" man as one voice in the Labour camp just put it - has left some of his colleagues "gobsmacked" and left the Cardiff Bay bubble for the Winter Fair in Builth Wells.

Mayday, mayday

Betsan Powys | 16:26 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010


You may well argue there've been too many installments to the recent mini-series called "S4C - Unhappy Days" but here is the latest.

Last night a meeting of the authority was held during which the Chair, John Walter Jones, made it clear that his understanding with the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, was that he would stand down as chair when he's 65, at the end of March. I had a brief word with Mr Jones this afternoon and he was happy to confirm that this is the case.

But other sources - no name, no pack drill - suggest that after a particularly stormy exchange, Mr Jones, who was taking part via video link, announced he would resign immediately and left to inform the Department of Culture, Media and Sport of his decision.

He later rejoined the meeting and informed the Authority that he'd reversed his decision. He plans, then, on staying in the Chair until the spring.

This morning Welsh Conservative MPs were out in force calling for the authority to stand down, with the exception of the chairman. Guto Bebb was their spokesman:

"Some members of the S4C Authority are more concerned with scoring political points against the coalition government than trying to move S4C forward to a secure future.

"We've come to the conclusion as a group of MPs especially after yesterday's evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee that the S4C authority are part of the problem rather than part of the solution."

So what's actually going here - what's the Kremlinology? It's all around the current negotiations with the BBC and the DCMS about how the two broadcasters will work together much more closely in the future.

There's clearly a split between the chair and the authority - but there's equally clearly a split within the authority between the pragmatists who want to make the best of the situation, and those who want to take a more gung ho approach to negotiations.

Things are coming to a head. The DCMS has clearly lost patience with the authority. The authority (or at least some strong factions within the authority), in turn, are agitating for the chair to step aside.

This is dangerous territory for an organisation already without a permanent chief executive.

All of which tells us what?

That this is an organisation in complete turmoil at a time when it needs to be united.

It should certainly tell anyone who has applied to be the channel's new Chief Executive (closing date Friday) that they might as well leave the application form in the drawer.

How can you appoint anyone to run a ship when you've left the navigator in the port, the captain is threatening to chuck himself off the side and the oarsmen are all rowing in different directions?

Stormy waters indeed.

UPDATE 17.45

The S4C Authority met again this afternoon. The Chair, John Walter Jones, wasn't there and one of the members, Rheon Tomos, was appointed as temporary deputy chair.

The suggestion coming from the S4C authority is that John Walter Jones didn't, in fact, tell them that he'd rescinded his resignation last night. Whether he remains in that chair or not is, incidentally, a matter for Mr Jones and the DCMS ... and Mr Jones is on the record tonight as saying that his understanding with Jeremy Hunt is that he will remain in post until March 2011.

Game plans

Betsan Powys | 11:49 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010


I don't play chess - though today, having been out and about yesterday, I'm aware I'm playing catch-up on the story of Yes = £300 million, No = nowt.

Your comments have rehearsed this argument here but given 'making things clear' is, I'm told regularly, part of my job, here's my attempt do lay things out as I see them.

I mentioned chess only because I'm told top chess players win their matches and are revered by all because they've learned that "planlessness is punished". So who exactly, in this scenario, is lacking a plan?

The UK coalition government document says this:

"We recognise the concerns expressed by the Holtham Commission on the system of devolution funding. However, at this time, the priority must be to reduce the deficit and therefore any change to the system must await the stabilisation of the public finances. Depending on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, we will establish a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly".
20 May 2010

Conservative leader Nick Bourne, amongst others, read it like this:

"In terms of specific Welsh points in the document published today, I very much welcome the recognition of concerns raised by the Holtham Commission and, subject to a
referendum yes vote, to take forward a Calman-style commission on funding for Wales."
20 May 2010

And again:

"In terms of specific Welsh points in the document, I very much welcome the recognition of concerns raised by the Holtham Commission and, subject to a referendum yes vote, to take forward a Calman-style commission on funding for Wales."
6 August 2010

Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams made it clear too that the issue of re-considering the way Wales is currently funding is a fundamental issue for her party.

"Making sure that housing powers are devolved to the assembly, supporting further electrification of the railways and setting up a commission to look at funding for Wales are all issues the Welsh Liberal Democrats have been fighting for."
20 May 2010

Then came the Spending Review. The Uk government's plan was laid out again:

"Depending on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, consideration of the proposals in the final Holtham report, consistent with the work being taken forward in Scotland following the Calman Commission"
20 October 2010

Labour saw their chance - and read it like this. The Conservatives and Liberal Demorats are saying they'd only review the way Wales is funded if there's Yes vote in the referendum. The Holtham Commission has reviewed just that and concluded that Wales should in future get an extra £300 million. The Welsh Conservatives and Welsh Liberal Democrats agree with that analysis. So if there's Yes vote in the referendum, Wales will get an extra £300 million.

As their leaflet, distributed amongst party members over the weekend puts it:

"The Labour-led Assembly commissioned research which shows the current funding formula is wrong - and Wales is being short-changed by £300million. Amazingly the Tories and the Lib Dems have said that this won't be resolved until after a yes vote. That gives us 300 million reasons to campaign for a yes vote on March 3rd."
20 November 2010

Then Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, came to Cardiff. He said that no, it doesn't. George Osborne has no plans to look at the funding formula until he's sorted out the economy. That might, I think we can safely assume, take some time.

On the other hand the UK government would "respond positively" to a request from Cardiff Bay for borrowing and taxation powers.

It was the turn of True Wales, who are campaigning for a No vote in the referendum, to read Mr Alexander's words and see their chance:

"True Wales has continually stated that, while the Barnett formula should be reformed, the commitment to a Calman type inquiry in Coalition Agreement did not with any certainty offer reform of Barnett, but did offer the definite prospect of giving the Welsh Assembly income tax and borrowing powers in event of 'Yes' vote.

"Mr. Alexander yesterday ruled out any changes to the formula, saying that tackling the deficit must take priority. He did, however, state that if there were a "consensus within the Welsh Assembly across the parties in relation to taxation and borrowing" he "would respond positively to that".

"Since the Assembly commissioned Holtham Report, which recommends tax and borrowing powers for the Welsh Assembly, has been warmly welcomed by Assembly members, it is more than likely that a 'Yes' vote in the referendum will bring the prospect of higher taxes on the hard-working people of Wales ever closer".
23 November 2010

Your move, I think, Yes campaigners.

To Bridgend

Betsan Powys | 10:51 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010


A day in Bridgend yesterday where I learned an awful lot, including:

1. In Litchard Primary School, If and when they get their share of the 'extra £61m' made available to schools, over the next three years they'll want to spend it on the staff they need now to deliver the Foundation Phase properly.

2. They were pleased by the prospect of any extra cash but I didn't see the bunting out.

3. What they really want is for the man who used to be on the board of governors and now happens to be First Minister, to make sure more of the money earmarked for schools by the Assembly Government is put in the hands of the headteacher to spend as he and his team see fit.

4. Lauren Rose grazed her knee and Curtis had never heard the name Betsan before.

I asked Carl Sargeant before heading off to Bridgend whether the £61m announced yesteday means the gap of £500 between how much is spent per pupil in Wales and in England is closed, even a bit? He didn't take the opportunity to answer one way or the other.

On to Angel Street, home to Bridgend County Council.

1. Council leader, Mel Nott, was on is way to a meeting to discuss what the cut of 1.4% in Bridgend's budget will mean for frontline services.

2. He talked very clearly about co-operation as a way of making efficiencies and savings and protecting those frontline services.

3. He mentioned adult social services specifically as a difficult area.

4. When Swansea Council hit the headlines last week for considering the outsourcing of their adult social services, they pointed to Bridgend as a council that was doing the same.

To what extent does the 'extra £35m' made available for social service provision help them out? It may solve some problems. It won't solve them all.

Just up the road Les and Dilys Meadows live at home, which is where they want to be.

1. Dilys couldn't live at home if it wasn't for the help she gets from the council's Social Services team three times a day.

2. Les, quite possibly, has the sharpest, wittiest tongue in Bridgend.

3. He couldn't look after Dilys at home if it wasn't for the help and respite he gets from the Crossroads project.

4. Les is afraid that there plans afoot to privatise the sort of care Dilys gets.

5. He really, really doesn't want it to happen because he's quite convinced it would be worse.

Carl Sargeant talked quite a bit yesterday about co-operation between Wales' 22 local authorities and "the need to do things differently".

He talked about these being "difficult, extraordinary times," about pressures and hard decisions to be made by those 22 authorities.

How about taking the bull by the horns and getting rid of the smaller authorities, he was asked? Why not go through a "short and dirty" process of amalgamating councills like Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Ynys Mon with their neighbours?

No thanks, seemed to be the response. "It would certainly be dirty but I can tell you now, it wouldn't be short".

"Doing things differently" it is then. Good luck with persuading Les - and every Les and Dilys throughout Wales - that different is better, let alone cheaper.

Barnett, birds, and bushes

Betsan Powys | 16:39 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010


Two minutes into his appearance before the Finance Committee meeting, Danny Alexander's jacket came off. Not before he'd asked politely of course whether that was all right with the Chair. The 'respect' part of the 'respect agenda' at work.

"You may. It is in warm in here" came the response from Angela Burns, as if aware that it was about to get rather warmer.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury seemed to have come to Cardiff with two things in his pocket - a tough message on the Barnett Formula, an open invitation on tax and borrowing powers.

His experience in front of the Welsh Grand Committee at Westminster even before the Spending Review was announced had given him the heads up that this afternoon wasn't going to be an armchair ride, so he made sure he had something in his back pocket.

It went a bit like this. How come, said the committee, that Wales got a raw deal from the Spending Review, one that left the Assembly Government worse off, in percentage terms, than either the Scottish or Northern Irish governments?

The answer, said Mr Alexander, was that non-domestic rates are devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in Wales. A fact that might have passed you by but the very simple explanation for why, when that part of the wider budget took a direct hit, Wales felt the effects rather more than either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Almost immediately, a theme developed. Of course, said the Chief Secretary, if you want to change that and avoid such an anomaly in future, we're open to discussion. Indeed the suggestion was made more than once in the past that Wales might take over that particular bit of expenditure but chose not to take it.

In other words: if you'd asked, you'd have got it but you didn't want it. "We'd be very happy to have that discussion at any point if Jane wants to raise it" became a familiar line to those in the viewing gallery, the rather fuller than usual viewing gallery. Mrs Hutt was always 'Jane' incidentally. Mrs Gillan always "the Secretary of State".

Labour and Plaid members of the committee weren't buying it.

How come Scotland and Northern Ireland got extra "hard cash" out of the Spending Review asked Brian Gibbons - the fossil fuel levy and the bail-out of the Presbyterian Mutual Society - while all Wales got was "a wing and a promise?"

Not true, said a very measured Mr Alexander. Wales got exactly what the current funding formula dictated it should. There were very exceptional circumstances in those two cases, he added.

Wales had lost everything - St Athan, the barrage - and gained nothing, pressed Chris Franks. And no-one had got more than London. Not the case, said the Chief Secretary. He listed projects in Merseyside, Leeds, Bristol. He might have got to Wales but Chris Franks got there first. "You'll mention Wales in a minute, will you?"

He did. How about the rail renewal programme between Newport and Cardiff? Not the strongest gambit. But the Chief Secretary had another.

Frankly, he argued, it was up to the Assembly Government to make their own choices. Spending on defence doesn't appear in Welsh-only figures but secures a lot of jobs in Wales. The Assembly Goverment is, after all, "free to make other choices within the resource envelope they have".

Look at the figures - Rosemary Butler's turn. Those statistics on cuts to capital spending rather "cut off" those choices. "You talked earlier on about fairness, but it does strike me, from this side of the Severn, that fairness seems to stop at the Severn Bridge."

On Barnett and reforming the funding formula? There was no link to a 'Yes' vote in a referendum at all said Mr Alexander, as Labour and Plaid have claimed. In fact neither was there a link to a 'No' vote. Bottom line, the coalition in Westminster has no plans to reform Barnett until the overall financial situation is much improved. This was no time for "technical, detailed and lengthy discussions" about funding mechanisms.

"Not even a wing and a promise then" muttered Brian Gibbons. It seemed worth noting, said Mr Alexander, that Labour had had 13 years and benign economic circumstances to deliver change and had chosen not to. He'd had a matter of months and the aftermath of a recession. He left it there.

And then the promise he'd kept in his other pocket. This government, said the Chief Secretary, sees "a strong case" for giving Wales some tax and borrowing powers if there's a cross party consensus for them. It would be "a sensible part" of strengthening the devolution process.

They were pressing ahead with powers for Scotland, so he would look very positively on introducing a similar system for Wales. It was, he said, "very much a matter for yourselves."

Did the AMs buy Mr Alexander's tax and borrowing bird in the hand rather than £300m Barnett revision in the bush?

As the session came to a close, the committee chair, Conservative Angela Burns (no hard-bitten critic of the coalition she) addressed him quietly, calmly, but very directly.

"As a committee, and as an Assembly, in the main, we believe that Barnett is unequal. We're not asking, as Wales, to be extra special compared with anybody else, we're one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom and we're simply asking to have the same kind of treatment as other areas. We are seeking a needs based formula - the Barnett formula has run its course."

They didn't buy it, I would say.

A Labour 'Yes'

Betsan Powys | 17:15 UK time, Saturday, 20 November 2010


I've never quite got over the fact that UWIC closed the small, single storey red brick nursery so many of its students relied on for childcare, then demolished it in order to build a massive, imposing School of Management. How perfect the irony if they now run people - or even anger - management courses.

It was, today, home to Welsh Labour's Special Policy Conference. There was a bit of anger, a bit of management of party issues but mostly, it was about rallying the troops to go out there and win two votes: the referendum on Assembly powers and the Assembly Election.

The anger was still post-budget fresh. How could Welsh Conservatives claim they'd ringfence spending on health in Wales? How could they even consider cutting the schools budget in order to do that? How could they pretend that getting rid of waste could pay for fully protecting health spending? It was, said Carwyn Jones, "the most dishonest agenda ever put before the people of Wales".

He'll find out, as will we all, before Christmas whether Nick Bourne and his Conservative group in the Assembly can, in fact, make their sums add up. Just as Carwyn Jones was taking a red biro to their maths this morning, Mr Bourne was pledging to publish his party's proposed, alternative budget before Christmas, laying out just how he can "commit to ringfencing the health budger, funded by eliminating waste, cutting many of Labour-Plaid's gimmicks and freebies and cutting bureaucracy".

A public sector pay freeze for everyone earning over £21,000 would be on the Conservative to-do list if they won power in May. There'd be a war on waste, a plan to pilot the direct funding of schools, cutting out local authorities, to ensure that schools got every penny they were owed.

There is some very real credibility at risk here and Mr Bourne knows it. Better to get his figures absolutely water tight and his ducks lined up before turning over his paper and showing just how the maths can be made to work. But equally vital to make it clear to all right now that this pledge wasn't made lightly.

"As the Official Opposition" said Mr Bourne, "Welsh Conservatives have a duty to show a clear and affordable alternative to Labour-Plaid's £380million cuts to the NHS and we will be publishing these before Christmas".

Meanwhile at the School of Management, Labour were doing a bit of their own revealing .... revealing just how they intend to manage their very own Yes campaign ahead of the March referendum. They will support the official Yes campaign, they will appear with Plaid Cymru, Conservative and Liberal Democrat colleagues to call for a Yes vote in March but they intend to win that vote by running their own, Labour-led Yes campaign.

On every seat today: this leaflet. "Not sure the Tories will like them much" said one conference goer. "Ho hum".

The message is this: Wales is "underfunded to the tune of £300m" - the finding of the Holtham Commission into the way Wales is funded. David Cameron's government have said they won't consider changing the funding formula until after a Yes vote. "That gives us at least 300 million reasons to campaign for a yes vote on March 3rd."

And a little something for Labour supporters?

"Voting "Yes" on March 3rd is the best way to make sure Welsh Labour's policies become law. The old system worked okay when we had a Labour Government in Westminster, but now Tory MPs would be in a position to delay Labour proposals to make Wales a fairer country".

Wonder what Peter Hain makes of that "okay". Wonder what Welsh Conservatives will make of the line of attack.

But there you have it: vote "Yes" Welsh Labour tells its supporters because that's the springboard it needs to win the next election. Vote Yes in March, for Labour in May.

Wonder what you make of that.

Form and Content

Betsan Powys | 07:52 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010


You can't please all of the people, all of the time. I reckon my inbox first things this morning was designed to prove that particular rule.

First, the Guardian's editorial which gives the Assembly Government's spending plans a thumbs up this morning. Why? For not pretending things are any better than they are. Faint praise you might argue; we'll take anything we're offered, WAG might argue back.

"In Wales, where the budget is half the size of Scotland's and where revenue-raising powers are, for now, more curtailed, the Labour-Plaid budget is no less indignant but far less opportunist. Having been dealt a tough hand, the Welsh not only look ahead across the whole spending review cycle but also grasp some painful nettles"

In their view, of yesterday's two budgets, "the Welsh is a more honest and progressive offer than the Scottish."

Honest? Let's see a bit more detail first. Professional? Absolutely not, says a second Email from an angry viewer in Blackwood, embarrassed that John Swinney's statement before fellow MSPs in the chamber in Edinburgh was followed by Jane Hutt's press conference, flanked by two civil servants, in a rather sad briefing room in the bowels of the Senedd. The shots of the Finance Minister, with her red pen, taking the First and Deputy First Minister through the ring-binder of draft figures didn't do it for him either.

"How embarrassing for Wales yet again, following Scotland's professional reviewing of their Budget, to see three people huddled around a Coffee Table under a Petrol Station Canopy projecting Wales' future.

Doesn't the Welsh WAG have any Image Advisors to stop such Negatives! Heaven help us!!!"

Don't shoot the messenger Mr Roberts. To tweak yesterday's much-favoured phrase of denial, 'that's the hand we media pack were dealt'.


While you were watching ...

Betsan Powys | 19:27 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Did you watch Jane Hutt delivering the Assembly Government's spending plans?

"The response of a responsible government" was the Finance Minister's offer. A "hypocritical" budget that "puts front line services at risk" retorted Welsh Conservatives. Only they would pledge to protect health-spending. How? No figures yet but Nick Bourne confirmed to me tonight on Wales Today that he'd be prepared to cut the schools budget by over 20% if necessary and freeze the pay of higher than average earners in the public sector to fully protect health. That's what the public want.

It's not, says Carwyn Jones who must have been watching Wales Today, as well as appearing on it. "At last, some clarity from the Conservatives. In order to protect health to the extent they want to, they want hammer schools budgets".

She hasn't made the same pledge on health but this budget was, said Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams, full of missed opportunities.

That debate will go on as headline figures give way to real, hard cash cuts.

Meanwhile Assembly Members were debating the future of Welsh broadcasting. Thanks to the wonders of Democracy Live, the unmissable (ok, I've no idea what the debate was like because despite having two eyes, both were trained on complex budget tables ..) is indeed unmissable. If you do want to know more, you can watch the debate here.

a whisper arrives from Westminster that on Tuesday, when the Welsh Affairs Select Committee discuss the future - and immediate turbulent past - of S4C, there may be some key and interesting figures giving evidence.


Numbers and crunching

Betsan Powys | 14:04 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Before the Finance Minister - or the civil servant charged with knowing which button on the keyboard to press on her behalf - unveils the Assembly Government's spending plans, what about this morning's unemployment figures to kick off the number crunching?

They are down - down more in Wales than in other parts of the UK.

So come on then, let's start the politicking early.

Cheryl Gillan interprets the drop as "a real vote of confidence in the coalition Government's economic policies". It is a sign too that the way forward for Wales is to grow and develop the private sector.

Her shadow, Peter Hain interprets the same figures this way. They are down to the other "Labour-led" coalition in Cardiff and its policies, as well as the last Labour government in Westminster. In other words the origins of today's good news is what we did back then, not what you're doing now. In fact you're putting all our good work at risk.

The "Heart of Wales" on the chamber floor had better watch out this afternoon. It's already cracked thanks, or so the story goes, to some heavier-than-he-looked dignitary who stood on it. This afternoon - forget minor cracks. We're talking serious dividing lines.

What do we know?

Some measure of protection for schools, skills and hospitals; a huge hit in store for capital projects; no pledge to ring-fence the health budget; free prescriptions, bus passes and school breakfasts all survive.

And those dividing lines?

Labour and Plaid will argue that they are making every attempt to keep faith with the most disadvantaged in the face of savage Conservative and Liberal Democrat cuts. The Conservatives will argue that Labour and Plaid are about to make a huge mistake in not pledging to fully protect the health budget and that we will all be paying for that mistake for years to come. The Liberal Democrats shout less about allocation than outcomes. It's what this government does with the money - has done with the money they've had in teh past - that matters in the end they argue. The fact that the word 'oucome' is in vogue in Cardiff Bay doesn't make delivering better results any easier, or more likely, they argue.

And what do we know from Scotland?

That the health budget will be ring-fenced, or in the Scottish Government's words "resource funding for health has increased by #280 million, delivering in full the Scottish Government's commitment to pass on the Barnett consequentials to the NHS". There's be a pay freeze except for lowest earners; money will be switched from revenue to capital (much easier, one WAG insider suggested politely to me this morning, when you've got loads more money in your reserves to play with than the government has here); cuts will total £1b.

Any minute now we'll have our own figures to mull over, to interpert, to defend or to attack. Wherever you stand on a day like this, we'll bring you those figures as quickly as we can.

Just keep pressing that refresh button.

Andrew v Andrew

Betsan Powys | 10:41 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Congratulations Prince William and Kate Middleton - and your timing is appreciated.

Just as the pre-draft budget waters were closing around my head and any chance of blogging today disappearing fast, the Royal engagement comes along and knocks me off the end of umpteen running orders. What we learn from this is that a royal engagement beats pre-budget predictions any day.

Let's avoid the guesstimates then and ask a specific question: what's going on in Swansea? More specifically, Swansea Council.

The answer is that it has been looking ahead, listening to warnings about the need to work more efficiently, do more with less in these cash-strapped times and has started looking around to find out whether there's anyone out there who could run its adult social services more efficiently than it can.

To be clear it's decided nothing. The wording of this "notice" - not a tender say Swansea - might suggest it's decided quite a lot but councillors are clear that it was published in the form it was to satisfy legal requirements. What it really, really wants is for a social enterprise to step into the breach and take over the running of its adult social services.

It doesn't say so clearly - or even subtly - they argue, because again, there are ways of doing these things. They've done what the rules and regulations say you should. What they haven't done is deny that they have already heard from over 20 companies interested in the £20m a year contract and that those companies are private, not social, enterprises.

If you're Labour's Andrew Davies - never a man who'd be caught wearing a T-shirt saying I Heart Swansea Council under his suit - what you see is "the mass privatisation of social services". This is a Liberal Democrat council acting undemocratically by opening the door to private companies to run vital services for the most vulnerable clients it has, with no regard for whether the people of Swansea think that's a good idea.

If you're the Conservatives' Andrew R.T Davies - never a man you'd mix up with the other Andrew Davies - what you see is a council doing what the Labour-led coalition government has told it to do. It's looked ahead, seen what's coming and is trying to find out how it can deliver savings without affecting frontline services. What he sees is a "knee-jerk response" from the local Labour member because Swansea is run by the Liberal Democrats. What he sees is someone "who in one breath lambasts the Assembly Government (and its civil servants) for not focussing on outcomes but then lands like a ton of bricks on a local authority who's doing just that because it's of a different colour".

What do the twenty private companies see, the ones who saw the notice Swansea posted just four days ago and who can barely have drawn breath before expressing an interest? From the speed and number of applications to hit Mr Griffiths' desk, you get the impression they must have seen a sign saying "Wales - open to (your sort of) business after all."

What happens next?

I suppose, put simply, that this happens: a council that has put itself 'out there' must now decide whether it's going to stay 'out there,' knowing that it's being watched very closely, not just by the Assembly Government but by twenty one other nervous local authorities.

Yes? Er, no.

Betsan Powys | 11:33 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010


What's this?

On the National Assembly for Wales events list for the week, a booking that raised a few eyebrows and led to a few panicked check calls.

The Media Briefing Room was booked this morning from 08.30 - 11.30 for the launch of the "YES action plan".

The YES action plan? Finally stirring now we know the referendum on further law-making powers will be held next March?

Hang on ... who booked it?

Leighton Andrews AM, also known as the man charged with managing the YES campaign ahead of March 3rd's referendum on more law-making powers for the Assembly.

But a launch with absolutely no warning at all? In the Senedd? Surely not!

Is he taking viral marketing to extremes? Spot it on the events list Email and you're in. Fail to spot it and you and your mates will have to watch it on Rhondda TV ...

No. Rest easy. It's the launch of the Youth Entrepreneurship Strategy for Wales.

Oh, Y.E.S. as opposed to YES.

And the Yes campaign? Any signs of it stirring to give True Wales, the contender to be the No campaign, a run for its money?

"Another few weeks" comes the response.

Ok, ok. I know you lot. Be still your beating hearts.

Spring elections, spring chickens

Betsan Powys | 15:24 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010


The former chairman of Plaid Cymru was not amused.

He looked down at his feet. No sandals. In fact, he insisted, he never wore sandals.

I could have sworn that John Dixon did wear sandals but no, absolutely not he argued. What he did have on was - um - well, a pair of comfortable shoes. I'm treading carefully here having got into trouble the last time I used those words on this blog. All I mean is that he was wearing the sort of sensible shoes my Dad wears - and that, it seems, was part of the trouble with him standing again for Plaid Cymru at next May's Assembly elections.

The problem is with the Dad reference, not the shoes.

He was, or so he says his party leader insisted, too old. Here's how John Dixon puts it himself on his blog (my Dad would never have one of those, by the way ...) in his response to former Plaid MP Adam Price's comments about the quality of Assembly Members.

"I cannot, of course, speak in detail about the selection processes of other parties, but there does seem to be something of a 'cult of youth' affecting all parties. There's an increasing tendency for people to go straight from university to politics, with no wider experience of the world outside, and I've never been convinced that's an entirely good thing. Some adapt well, but others can sometimes appear to be stuck in a rather more simplistic approach to politics, and, as Adam suggested, lack that broader background which comes from outside experience.

"That cult certainly affects Plaid Cymru. When Ieuan told me in June that he did not want me to be a candidate for next May's Assembly elections, my age was one of the issues he raised. It was his view that, with Ron Davies likely to be selected in Caerffili, the party simply couldn't afford to have any other old men standing as candidates where we might win, because that would send the wrong message about what sort of a party Plaid Cymru is".

You wonder where Mr Dixon was tempted to stick his sensible shoe on hearing the message. We already have one old guy standing. Can't really have another. I bet he was tempted to ask after the spring chicken who's standing for Plaid in Anglesey ...

So voters are getting older and it's older voters who tend to turn out on polling day but these days, parties don't feel they can have too many candidates who look like them and are like them?

I'll stop there. I have, after all, just stopped ticking the 25-44 age bracket in questionnaires.

Sore subjects probably make very, very bad blog entries.

Through the keyhole

Betsan Powys | 16:44 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


So the Assembly Government plans to close its office - "mini embassy" to quote the Welsh Conservatives - in the Chrysler Building in New York. You can add Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, Milan and Munich to the list.

Offices in Sydney, China, the United States and Brussels live to fight another day. Who knows what happens to others in Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangalore, Delhi, and Tokyo.

But that reminds me: who lives in an office like this?

Thursday 15.30

The answer is Cheryl Gillan, when she's in Cardiff and her colleagues in the Wales Office.

On the wall of the office block just opposite the Assembly is a plaque that gives the name of the building - Discovery House. The only other plaque is the one that tells visitors where to find the Consulate of Iceland. First-time visitors to the Wales Office are told that if they've got to the little Italian coffee shop on the corner, they've gone too far.

At least you hope that those who've got lost trying to find Discovery House appreciate the irony ...

A spoonful of sugar

Betsan Powys | 12:43 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


A week to go before the Assembly Government publishes its draft budget - high time, then, for battle lines to be drawn.

This afternoon the Conservatives will lead a debate on protecting the Welsh health budget. It's a simple, eye catching headline that they hope will cast them as the defenders of the NHS - in contrast to the three other parties, none of whom are prepared to match the pledge.

It is absolutely what mothers at a baby health clinic I visited yesterday wanted to hear. It's simple, they said. As families, they put health first. The Assembly Government should do the same and if the coalition has done it in Westminster, all the more reason for the coalition here in Cardiff to protect health from cuts. And the knock-on effect on everything else? Granted, it would mean other important areas missing out but health is just key, so it mustn't be cut. Nick Bourne, then, had got it right.

Only one Mum said she understood that might be impossible. Money was too tight. The NHS in Wales would just have to stop offering some services, so that there was money to ensure what they did do was done as well and as safely as possible.

But headlines are one thing - details are another. The health budget makes up around 40 per cent of the total spending from the Welsh block grant. To protect it means that all the cuts needed from the Assembly Government's budget will have to fall on the other areas of the budget.

The Conservative leader Nick Bourne confirmed that the Tory pledge is to give the entire Welsh health budget - revenue and capital - increases in line with the Retail Price Index, or around three per cent a year.

In a way, that's neither a hospital food portion of fish nor fowl. Health economists point out that health inflation runs at nearer 5-6 per cent a year, so RPI won't be enough to keep up with demand. But at the same time giving any measure of protection to health hammers budgets elsewhere.

What does 'hammers' mean? What, in outline terms, would RPI increases for health mean for the Assembly Government's capital budget over the next four years?

The current total capital budget is £1.7bn, of which just over £400m is allocated to health. So the split currently is roughly: £400m health to £1.3bn all other departments.

The total capital budget will fall by 40 per cent over the next four years. But if the health component is protected according to RPI inflation then after four years, the rest of the budgets will have to be cut by nearer 50 per cent and under the Tories, the split will look more like:

£450m for health to £650m for all other departments.

Think about that. That's £650m to cover every new school, new road, new flood defence and all the other capital projects outside health. The Tory leader was asked whether he was comfortable with that sort of distribution. Yes, he said. That's our policy.

Privately, others are less certain. One senior figure, asked whether he could really justify this, rolled his eyes and shrugged, saying "Well, it's what the (Tory) group"

Does that sound to you like a policy driven by careful budgetary analysis? After all it absolutely has to sound like that, otherwise it's in danger of sounding like a Tory group looking to burnish their pro-NHS credentials on Budget day.

Let's be clear. Protecting the health budget is a perfectly tenable policy position and one likely to be popular with many sections of the public.

The issue is that the Tories seem to be heading for a serious credibility problem given that at the moment, they're refusing point blank to identify any cuts they would make elsewhere in the Welsh budget. Their argument is that they don't have the legions of civil servants at the government's disposal to number crunch on their behalf. True enough. But if that's the case, it must be fair to ask how they can be so gung-ho about their NHS pledge?

Other parties are waking up to this. Plaid Cymru are assiduously preparing the ground for next Wednesday, Emailing, briefing, very aware that the Tories are looking to outflank them on health spending. The Liberal Democrats are already focusing on what they see as the One Wales' government's mismanagement of the health service over the past three and a half years. It's not about allocation, they say, it's about outcomes and those, after over ten years of devolution and Labour-led governments, are nowhere near good enough. That's what matters.

The aim for them this afternoon is to take aim - take aim at the Conservatives that is and try and shoot their fox before the draft budget is released and the headlines about cuts to NHS spending start.

If the Tories can't answer a straightforward question as to what they would cut to protect health- and Labour are certain to ask it with some force this afternoon - it could undermine their position in both the short and long term. In the short term, they'd be in danger of looking opportunist and losing the support of those mums at the baby clinic.

But there's a long term problem too. If the Tories are in opposition again after May, how can they attack the new Assembly Government on missed education targets or environment targets without the answer coming back that under a Conservative administration, investment in those areas would have been slashed?

In all of this there is, as one senior nursing representative put it to me this morning, a very difficult message for politicians from all sides to hear. Those who support cutting the health budget must convince doctors and nurses they're going to cut it in the right places and convince patients it's right for their local hospital to close. Those who say they wouldn't cut must come up with realistic figures and spell out what else gets the chop.

"I say it's a hard message to hear" she said. "With an election in May it's going to be even harder to sell".

One size fits all?

Betsan Powys | 10:10 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010


It's a big week - and month - for public sector jobs.

The Assembly Government publishes its draft budget for the next three years on November 17th but either side of that there are critical meetings which will determine whether major changes to the way public servants work will be implemented relatively smoothly - note the 'relatively' in that line - or lead to widespread industrial strife.

The omens aren't good. First Neath Port Talbot, then more recently Rhondda Cynon Taf have been at the centre of bitter disputes about staff working conditions and possible redundancies. Unions have denounced the way RCT in particular have handled the process, accusing them of "holding a loaded pistol" to the heads of workers and threats of lock-outs.

Both councils counter this strongly. They say that projected budget shortfalls over the next few years leave them with no choice. They simply have to implement greater workforce flexibility. RCT, for example, foresee a £60m shortfall between income and expenditure over the coming three years - a gap that can't be bridged without major changes to staff working.

The management of RCT strongly dispute the "lock out" claims from the GMB. They say it was beholden on them to issue a statutory notice warning of possible changes to staff terms and conditions and possible redundancies given they're in the process of drawing up a budget for next year that inevitably has to include spending cuts - with all the obvious implications they bring with them.

Negotiation by threat and diktat say the unions.

These cases are being watched extremely closely. Some observers feel the councils may have jumped the gun just a bit and that's why this month is so important.

On Wednesday the HR heads of all 22 local authorities will get together with the aim of thrashing out a range of what's being called, somewhat euphemistically you might argue, "workforce flexibilities" in order to try and protect jobs and services. Remember those two tables? Yes, what they'll do is sit down at those tables, take stock of where individual councils are in terms of planning for the cuts and then set out a coherent set of proposals. A colleague - a Spice Girls fan at that - suggests "When 22 become 1" as a title for this entry. You'll be glad that I resisted but his (yes, his) suggestion is noted for a later date.

The next key date is around a fortnight later, on November 26th, when the Wales TUC will hold a special conference in Cardiff attended by the First Minister and TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber.

Reading between the lines, it looks as if the plan is for the proposals emanating from Wednesday's meeting to be signed off by the WLGA top brass as soon as possible afterwards, so they can be presented to the a meeting of the Workforce Partnership Council, which brings together employers and unions, either just before or just after the TUC conference on the 26th.

Local government is desperate to avoid the kind of headlines that would be generated by 22 separate standoffs like that in RCT. The prize for them is an agreed set of cost-saving measures - as yet unspecified - which could be tweaked to match local circumstances but have basically been agreed by the unions on an all-Wales level. This should reduce, if not eliminate strife on a council by council basis.

Will it work?

It'll be tough. The TUC aren't in particularly compromising mood. Senior sources say they feel that councils, spooked by months of headlines about slashed budgets, are rushing headlong into staff cuts regardless of the actual level of budgets. There are even murmurings about getting the Assembly Government to step in if the measures are seen as excessive.

According to the WLGA, the rationale for starting with local government when it comes to workforce flexibility is that it has a large number of employees and has a major impact on the Welsh economy in terms of services to the community, jobs and contracts with external companies and providers.

They point out that it is also the most complex both in terms of the business and its composition as 22 separate sovereign employers. It could set the template, however, for a pan-public sector approach in Wales.

The stakes are high. If the two sides can find enough common ground it could make the process of dealing with the cuts far more harmonious and avoid damaging industrial action and institutional paralysis.

If consensus can't be found, then judging by the rhetoric thus far, years of anything but harmony lie ahead with precious little to bring together employer, worker and you and me, the service user, at exactly the time they all need to be pulling in exactly the same direction.

'The cuts and the cull'

Betsan Powys | 15:04 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010


Think small.

Let's try again.

If you're a small country, make a virtue of your size. Go with it. Take a small country approach to massive problems and you'll do better than trying big boy solutions.

That, at least, is the gist of what you hear from supporters of ProAct, the Assembly Government scheme to save jobs during the recession. From its critics, 'one trick pony' is as kind as it gets... but I digress.

How many Welsh workers were kept in jobs during the recession thanks to the Assembly Government's ProAct scheme? The figure I heard Carwyn Jones quoting earlier this week was 12,000. The point he was making? That Wales is small enough to get key players round a table, or a table or two at least and get things done.

At the end of the month, at a special conference, there's a suggestion the TUC is up for taking the same approach: come together, protect jobs. Among issues debated will be a plan to create some form of All-Wales union negotiating body.

Will everyone be up for it? Probably not. There'll no doubt be those who'd prefer to negotiate on an England and Wales basis but its supporters are hoping to pave the way, at least, towards an united, All-Wales negotiating front.

Yet another group came together yesterday to protect jobs on an All Wales basis. That they were Welsh MPs and that the jobs were their own might put you off. Then again you might eschew the easy hit and - like Pontypridd Labour MP Owen Smith - see in a handful of jobs a fist aimed at democracy.

You can add Aberavon Labour MP Hywel Francis to the list. Yesterday's meeting of the Welsh Parliamentary party, he argued, is part of the same democratic process as the Chartists and Suffragettes: "Today we are standing of the shoulders of these people."
If you eschewed the easy hit first time, I'm sure you can do it again.

By the way the same Dr Francis is giving the Welsh Political Archive annual lecture in Aberystwyth tomorrow night. He'll be speaking about 'Ireland 1916; Russia 1917; Cymru?; Aberystwyth graffiti circa 1978' - a curious title aimed, no doubt, at attracting an auditorium full of curious people. But I digress again.

On Tuesday Owen Smith wrote another article for the Western Mail on "the twin crises" he believes Wales is facing, those of the cuts (Welsh jobs) and the cull (Welsh MPs' jobs). I can't link to it, so let me quote a short extract:

"Comparisons from seat to seat, like that from the Rhondda (52K voters) to bucolic Somerton and Frome (81k), however relevant when asking why votes in one, individual seat should 'count more' than those in another, cannot obscure the equally legitimate, constitutional question of how to balance the total, aggregate representation of Wales, our 'David' (or Dai?) - the 40, soon to be 30 Welsh seats - against the English 'Goliath' of 533.

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The Good Morning Wales paper reviewer who saw it, read it and was put on the spot about the "legitimate constitutional question" raised in it was Haydn Blackey. His early morning grappling with the issue of how many MPs should Wales be left with is above.

Yours would, as usual, be very welcome.

Nod if you agree.

Betsan Powys | 10:47 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Watching FMQs yesterday what did I see?

A harassed Dad carrying out his tiny, bawling baby from the public gallery. Well done Dad for giving the next generation such an early lesson in democracy. Sorry it didn't go down better.

I saw a First Minister clearly aware that it's time to appear, at least, to move on from knocking what Wales got out of the CSR. That Wales is being treated unfairly is the Labour line and yes, you can bet your last penny we'll hear it over and again between now and next May. Set aside for now whether the evidence stands it up. We'll hear it over and again because we seem to be starting to believe it and because it's already appearing to hurt the Tories and even more so the Lib Dems in the polls.

The economist, Gerry Holtham, was amongst those listening to the First Minister last night in a speech at the Cardiff Business School. He's a man with a nice line in languid, yet acerbic comment and his advice to Mr Jones was this: the first time you say something's unfair, people hear you. The second time you're a whinger. The third time you're a serial whinger and a bore. The First Minister had already left the building. His advisers might be interested to know it was the most well received comment of the night.

What else caught my eye in the chamber yesterday? What looked like a row of Churchills. Not Winston but that other Churchill, the dog that's famous for nodding - and just to be clear, it's solely the nodding bit that links them. As Carwyn Jones turned more than one answer to the electrification of the rail line to Swansea, they started nodding.

If the coalition government in Westminster announces they've decided to pay only for electrifying the line as far as Bristol? Insulting, thundered Mr Jones. The nodding started. However if they go ahead with the Labour plan to electrify the line through to Swansea, that would at least help to alleviate the feeling, said Mr Jones, that Wales is pretty much the last consideration on Mr Cameron's and Mr Clegg's list when it comes to spending their precious pennies.

The nodding got more vigorous.

Cheryl Gillan is in Cardiff today and in private meetings with the Tory group, it's clear the nodding will continue. "We have to" said one of the Churchills. "They've got to give us something. It's a double or quits strategy now or we could be down to 9 seats next May. I don't think it will get that bad, but ... " More of a headshake than a nod accompanied that last line.

So what if the "insult" is avoided and electrification goes only as far as ... say, Cardiff? What about half-way through the Severn Tunnel? A senior Labour train spotter is unamused by the suggestion, however facetious. Railways aren't devolved and so there's just no money in the Welsh pot to continue electrification in Wales. Half a job is no job at all.

It'll be an interesting group meeting. It might be made all the more interesting, perhaps, by Andrew RT Davies' entirely appropriate gesture of sending a letter of congratulations to all those who've made it onto the Conservative list as candidates next May. Why not. Nothing wrong with gathering brownie points after all. But what are the odds Mr Davies sent one to the man he pushed down into second place on the list in South Wales Central ... and to the lead candidate for the Tories in Mid and West Wales, also known as...the boss?

As that Churchill might put it, "Oh Yes!"

Questions, questions

Betsan Powys | 13:15 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, Mrs Powys.

Then we'll begin.

Today's big question is this: are Welsh secondary school pupils getting better results than they were a decade ago?

No brainer? They are.

Correct. GCSE results just keep getting better so yes, Welsh pupils are achieving higher grades than they were, say, a decade ago.

Right answer, wrong question perhaps. Let's try another one, a more probing one.

Have the results gained by pupils in Wales improved as much as pupils in England?

The answer? No.


The answer that came today from Bristol University - one with a great deal of data attached - says it's because league tables were abolished in Wales nine years ago but not in England. From that point on English secondary schools started to outperform schools here and the gap has grown ever since.

If you have the Bristol answer down as correct, then you accept that Welsh schools - in particular ones in less affluent area that don't perform well - have no fear of being named and shamed in official league tables, so they're not motivated to pull up their socks and do better.

Then again you may have the Bristol answer down as plain wrong. 0 out of 10. You may already have got out your red pen and written "crass" or "questionable piece of research" or "numerous flaws in the methodology" next to it like the NASUWT and ASCL Cymru.

In the chamber this afternoon Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams had hoped to whack the FM over the head with the Bristol report. She'd hoped to floor him with a hard-hitting question about the Labour government's failure to invest in Welsh pupils, follow it up with a rhetorical question about who's fault it was that pupils in Welsh schools are falling behind their counterparts in England and finish him off with the $64,000 version: what is he intending to do about it?

In the event, class, she fluffed it. Why weren't pupils in Wales doing better, she asked. (Note the flaw in the question class - way too open.) They ARE doing better, countered Mr Jones. Performance hasn't fallen at all. It's risen! Guffaws of delight from the Labour benches.

Back she came. Yes, ok, it may have risen but not by as much as in England. Aha, says Mr Jones. You started out by saying standards had dropped. Now you're accepting they've increased. That was quick! The Education Minister, a man who tends to make sure his metaphorical punches land, couldn't contain his delight.

At the third attempt the punch is thrown ... sort of ... but by then the FM is more than ready to side-step it. He's not at all sure the report is comparing like with like but of course, he wants to see the gap in performance closing.

For your homework, I'd like you to do a comparative study of these two statements in response to the Bristol report: the first an extract from an Assembly Government Spokesperson:

"We want to improve performance across all schools and believe strongly that league tables are not the most effective way of presenting information to schools, parents, and the wider public.

"Robust self evaluation and performance data play a vital role in promoting continuous improvement and we fully endorse this. As a result we have designed an All Wales Core Data Set for primary and secondary schools which will give key information about school performance".

Now how about this - described as an "additional line" - from the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews:

"In Wales over the decade of devolution we have implemented most of the changes the profession wanted to see. So we don't have league tables. We will see in December when the international comparisons of school performance are reported in the OECD's PISA survey whether that approach has paid off. "

Is that the sound of a Minister foreseeing disappointing results and putting the onus fair and square and early on the shoulders of teachers?

That, class, is what you call a rhetorical question.

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